Security pact gives Iraqi security forces a new swagger
Stars and Stripes August 2, 2009
BAGHDAD — Turki Atiah Thamer and Mohrfakh Ali Namdar rolled through Khadamiyah to inspect checkpoints in the well-worn Chevy pickup that is the trademark vehicle of the Iraqi National Police force, wagging an AK-47 out the window while waving traffic to pass.
On the bustling streets of this Baghdad neighborhood, there’s no body armor, no hulking, blast-resistant trucks — and no American soldiers in sight.
“Iraqis are taking over,” Thamer said. “The people appreciate that.”
U.S. troops have become a sort of nocturnal curiosity in Iraq’s cities, rarely seen except for the occasional camouflage mushroom of a helmet peeking out of a gunner’s hatch during a pre-dawn convoy. For a month now, since the June 30 pullback of American troops from urban areas to their bases, such convoys have been sharply restricted, operating only late at night and early in the morning — and then only with Iraqi approval.
When they do roll, the Americans draw puzzled looks from local residents and the occasional unfriendly greeting from their Iraqi counterparts.
In Khadamiyah, both a commercial and Shiite religious center, the differences from a few weeks ago are striking. Before June 30, Humvees and large armored trucks known as MRAPs ruled the roads and soldiers on foot patrol were a common sight. Under the new rules, U.S. combat soldiers can patrol if their Iraqi counterparts request it — but it hasn’t happened.
At the few U.S. bases that are still open around urban areas, such as Khadamiyah’s Forward Operating Base Justice, gyms are busy, chow halls are packed, and soldiers are getting in extra reading and video-game playing.
Most of the action for Americans now takes place behind closed doors, in front of banks of computers and television screens receiving feeds from cameras and unmanned drones, technologies the Iraqis still largely lack.
“We’re still on QRF, ready if they need us,” said U.S. Army Capt. Carl Quinlin, referring to the so-called quick reaction forces designed to back up Iraqi units in trouble. “But mostly we do a lot of training.”
The virtual disappearance of Americans from the streets has given the Iraqi security forces a new swagger.
“We would like to assure the Iraqi people and our friends that our security forces are now ready and now have the capacity in planning and executing operations in the cities without the help of U.S. combat forces,” said Iraqi Lt. Gen. Ali Gheidan Majeed at a recent news conference.
“Now we don’t need the American forces,” he added, “not just in Baghdad, but even in the provinces.”
For ordinary Iraqis, the change has seemed to bring them closer to a sense of normalcy, though a string of recent bombings across Baghdad was the latest reminder that the nation still roils with instability beneath the surface.
Driving is a lot easier, for example. The severe gridlock once caused when slow-moving American convoys backed up cars for miles was a universally bitter Iraqi complaint. On top of all their other worries, Iraqis often couldn’t make it to work on time or drive to the market to shop.
Now, said Thamer, “you can see it’s not like when the coalition patrolled with all the traffic backed up.”
Still, some Iraqis worry that a simmering insurgency, plus threats from Iran and Syria, will prove too much for the country’s inexperienced military to handle.
“The Iraqi forces are not ready and they don’t have the equipment to defend the country themselves,” said National Police officer Muhammad al-Shweli.
Since June 30, there have been countless disagreements between Iraqi officials and American commanders over what the new patrol rules mean. In restive Diyala province, all U.S. troop movements were halted by an order from the Iraqi government shortly after the deadline, sparking vigorous talks between U.S. and Iraqi commanders and Iraqi government leaders.
U.S. convoys are still regularly stopped at checkpoints in Baghdad, sometimes resulting in tense standoffs, though such incidents are becoming less frequent, according to U.S. soldiers operating in the capital.
“The rules are so vague they can be read any way you want,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Drake Jackson, who works closely with Iraqi National Police in Khadamiyah.
But U.S. and Iraqi commanders downplay such incidents.
“Inside the cities, all the American movement is under coordination with the Iraqi security forces and there is no problem,” said Majeed at a recent news conference.